Writing On it All: An Interview
By Davis Schneiderman
with Alexandra Chasin (on an Innovative Use of an Old House on Governors Island)
June 05, 2013
I talked with writer Alexandra Chasin about her project Writing On It All on Governors Island, in New York Harbor (about three minutes from both Manhattan and Brooklyn by ferry).
From June 15 to June 30, artists, writers, and interested members of the public will collaborate in a series of unusual writing activities in an out-of-use house on the island.
The site served as quarters for a senior officer’s family when Governors Island functioned as a military base.
Davis Schneiderman: What is the project and how did it begin?
Alexandra Chasin: Writing On It All begins from a conviction that writing is a social act. It begins from the desire to enact a kind of resistance to the Romantic and Modernist mythologies of writing. Those myths locate writing on the interior of a gifted mind in a sphere untouched by the market, by politics, and even by other people; the gift of that writerly mind is to channel divine spirit, or muse, which it does in a garret off the ground, just a little bit closer to that spirit than the rest of us. This imaginary writer obscures the reality that writing is a social practice, always grounded in a particular time and place, and necessarily engaging material objects and physical gestures. That writers are, ourselves, embodied.
So Writing On It All is an extended experiment in sociality, materiality, site-specificity, and ephemerality in relation to writing… all over the interior of a very particular house.
But that’s not how it began. Or what it is.
DS: So, how did it begin?
AC: Writing On It All began as a wondering. I wondered what it would be like to see writing on the inside of a building. I think this was initially an almost aesthetic impulse, because I have always found writing, print, to have a decorative element, whether handwritten or mechanically produced, whether or not I understand the language in which it is written. Even (perhaps especially) if I can’t read them, I almost always have a pleasurable response to graphics (and pleasure makes the world go round); I’m ready to receive text as design, among other things. English, anagram, Walloon, hieroglyphics, Japanese, Morse code, Russian, music, Chinese, math, Greek, Arabic—all of these manifest patternicity, they all utilize a constantly expanding but functionally stable set of arbitrary symbols to convey meaning in written forms. They look like something, like many somethings, like each other and unlike each other.
DS: This reminds me of the old Balzac story: the poor caffeine fiend Balzac, at an economic low point, writes the things that he desires on the bare walls of his dwelling: “Italian fireplace,” etc. Of course, here you’ve taken the Bourgeois space of writing and reinscribed it once again in the public sphere.
AC: As I have found, there is a long and truly multi-cultural tradition of writing on buildings, from Mayan temples to the recently abandoned house in Chongqing on which a vagrant writer transcribed a super-hero kung-fu novel.
But back to the public sphere, yes. I had heard the urban myth that it was possible to buy a building for $1 from some municipalities, maybe a small town up the Hudson had a little 10,000 square-foot number they’d like to have someone take off their hands if that someone might “improve” the building or bring in a couple of tourists. I mentioned this fantasy to my brother, Peter Case, who is an architect. He said I could get a building like that but it would need all kinds of work to make it sound for public use, which would cost $2,000,000. Or I could buy a building of that size ready for use, which would cost $2,000,000. So, I put the idea on the back burner.
Then one day, I had the extremely good fortune to find myself in conversation with David Belt, a developer in New York City who specializes in reuse and conversion (and has the creative turn of mind). So I mentioned the idea of writing on a house, and David told me that Governors Island has out-of-use houses it makes available to art projects and institutions during the summers, when the island is open to the public—thus setting the project in motion, plus, his enthusiasm was a big boost.
DS: And if I know you, this is when the light bulb not only went off above your head but also began expanding in a thousand different directions?
AC: Then the fun part began – imagining what kind of events we might offer to get all kinds of people—artists and writers, but also members of the public to engage in experiments in the social nature of writing. David Belt introduced me to a couple of architects, Silvia Fuster and Evan Bennet of VAMOS, who made renderings of imagined writing exercises, which would prove very useful in the process of securing space, fiscal sponsorship, funding, and more. Given a location, we now had room to explore what site-specificity might mean, and began with the history of Governors Island as a military base, and its location in the New York Harbor with the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, figures of haven, immigration, etc.
Throughout, I’ve worked closely with Project Manager Jen Bleier, who came with a background in movement and an M.A. in Applied Theater from CUNY. Jen and I brainstormed; we even brainstormed how to have a brainstorming session with artists and writers about what kind of artists and thinkers and writers might want to work in this physical and conceptual space. We knew we wanted a diverse set of modalities represented. All the writers and artists we’ve approached have been very responsive; they’ve been drawn to the possibilities, and have designed creative ways to engage the public with writing on the interior of Building #6B on Nolan’s Park….
So to answer your first question, here’s what Writing On It All is: a series of seven sessions taking place in June 2013 on Governors Island, each facilitated by different people and oriented around different themes, disciplines, genres, and/or media, but all engaged with writing as a social practice.
DS: What are examples of the themes/curatorial combinations?
AC: New School faculty member, poet Wendy S. Walters, is working with some of the meanings raised by Governors Island, using participants’ associations with words like “harbor” and “fortress” to prompt site-specific writing. Graffiti artist Al Diaz will invite participants to interact with signs he has put up in the house. There will be a session that focuses on movement conducted by Rachel Levitsky, of the Office for Recuperative Strategies, and Jovanina Pagano, a dance improviser and educator. Anne Carson, Robert Currie and their collaborators, working under the sign of Ébauche, will pair visual artists and writers in a kind of collaboration fishbowl that others can watch. In another session, clients of the Bellevue Hospital program, Survivors of Torture, will engage in a collaborative writing exercise. Kundiman Poets, an Asian American writers collective, will take up problems of racism in relation to a poetics of home and belonging.
DS: This is all a great set-up, but what will actually happen?
AC: Well, even though we have all the artists and sessions lined up with date and place, we have no idea what will unfold. Writing On It All is an experiment.
DS: Okay, but what are the ways the public can be involved, and how will you document/display for the work for those, like me, unable to land on the island?
AC: Anyone in New York City at the end of June is welcome to sign up to participate in a session, or to volunteer to provide support for the sessions. Each day, following the session(s), there is an hour in which the house is open for viewing, and commenting. For those who want to track the project remotely, we will be posting little video clips on our website following each session. We’d love to have folks come on down and write it up, or post and tweet from wherever they are. And I hope it’s not tacky to say, people can also participate by making a donation. For more information about how to get involved, go to writingonitall.com.
In the end, in recognition of the ephemeral nature of the project—because we are obligated to return the house to its original condition at the beginning of July – we are making a video documentary. I call the project conceptual because we are not motivated to make something beautiful, or something that conforms, artfully or craftily, to conventions of a received genre. Instead, we are motivated by a set of ideas, questions, thematics, problems that extend from, and/or through, writing, all over the phenomenal world, committed, primarily, to an experimental writing practice. However, it is possible that moments of grace, meaning, and even beauty may happen. Partly to identify and hold some of those moments, whether they are gestures or text, partly to resist the sadder effects of ephemerality, and partly to be able to share the project with people who weren’t there, we will be documenting Writing On It All in a video.
I also call Writing On It All conceptual because of the way the project points to the other pole in today’s conversation about the dematerialization of the book. On Governors Island, the inside of Building 6B in Nolan Park is like an exploded codex; we’re working on a hypermaterialization of text, a literalization of surface, an enactment of Acknowledgments. These principles underlie the project. But the project proper is the action, the acts of writing yet to take place, which can only surprise us, since we don’t know what to expect.
DS: Of course the location is a happy accident you describe above, and I wonder if you have or will incorporate any specific aspects of the island—its Native period as a “nut island,” its colonial use for the Royal Governors, etc.—as a historical site into the project?
AC: Seriously, I do hope those historical associations get made. We will welcome all ghosts, and honor them as elder marker-makers. It’s a revisionist historical project, in its bones. Like our postcard says: “Join a giant collaborative writing experiment: read, react, revise, redact, and otherwise revel in writing all over the walls!”
DS: If you could replicate or extend this to other structures, what’s the dream list?
AC: In fact, one of the reasons we want to make a video is that we think the project is fundamentally replicable, maybe even by us. I’ve envisioned doing this kind of work in private residential and domestic settings; in institutions like schools, prisons, hospitals; industrial or commercial settings—and the cool thing is that it would be radically different each time, or rather each place, because of the particular history, type, form, materials, usage, and community, of the particular building in play.
Alexandra Chasin is the author of Selling Out: The Gay and Lesbian Movement Goes to Market; Kissed By; and Brief, which debuted as an app for the iPad. Chasin holds a 2012 Fellow in Fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and has been awarded a fellowship at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at CUNY for 2013-14, where she will complete Chasing the Ghost, an experimental biography of Harry J. Anslinger (first commissioner of the Federal Narcotics Bureau, 1930-1961). Chasin is Associate Professor of Literary Studies at Lang College, The New School.